01 Aug How to love another man’s wife. [Freud (Brett Kahr)]
As a psychotherapist who works not only with individuals, but also with couples, I have witnessed a great deal of marital carnage over the last thirty years. Each week, wives and husbands, long-term girlfriends and boyfriends, as well as gay or lesbian partners, come to my consulting room to complain about the often deep-seated misery which has come to blight their romantic and sexual relationships. Although I sometimes think that I have seen and heard just about every permutation of spousal woe, I soon discover yet another variant of the many ways in which intimate partners can become distanced from one another or even deeply injured by one another. Over the years, I have encountered many different types of painful, marito-sexual upheavals – whether a wife discovering that her husband might be addicted to Internet pornography; a boyfriend coming to realize that his girlfriend might be lesbian; a man admitting that he has no sexual desire for anyone at all; or a woman confessing that she has reached her seventies without ever having had an enjoyable sexual experience because physical intimacy had always reminded her of early childhood abuse, suffered decades previously at the hands of a close family member. But amid this welter of relational and sexual confusion and distress, two particular symptomatic constellations consume a great deal of my practice, namely:
1. couples who had once enjoyed physical relations prior to marriage but who, upon exchanging rings, no longer find themselves attracted to one another; and
2. long-term partners whose marriages explode in the wake of an extramarital affair.
Why do human beings struggle so greatly to maintain consistent, ongoing, intimate relationships? Why do we gravitate towards the inhibition of pleasure?
Fortunately, Sigmund Freud had some very important insights into the ways in which we undermine our sexual lives and our spousal relationships. Freud had good reason to find answers to these questions. Not only did he encounter cases rather similar to mine in the context of his psychoanalytical clinical practice, but he also strove to find answers, in part because of his own complicated domestic situation. After many years of marriage to his beloved wife Martha, mother of his six children, Freud, by his own admission, ceased all sexual contact with her. Instead, he embarked upon a longstanding affair with his wife’s younger sister, Minna Bernays, a spinster who lived in the Freud household, and who had de- voted much of her time to the care of his children.
Freud argued that many men become aroused if they can embroil themselves in a relationship with either a married woman, or with a taboo, off-limits woman (for example, Freud’s sister-in-law) be- cause, in doing so, the man will derive some secret, unconscious, pleasure from the fact that people will be hurt, whether the cuckolded husband, whether the cheating man’s wife, or the unfaithful man himself, who runs the risk of being hated by all concerned. Freud also expressed the view that not only do many men enjoy sex with other men’s wives, but that many will also find themselves attracted to promiscuous women. By sleeping with a prostitute, a man might derive a secret satisfaction of taking the woman of ‘bad repute’ away from all the other men with whom she has had sexual con- tact. In this way, the man in question becomes, in his mind, what we might call the ‘top dog’.
So what can we learn from Freud’s observations on the psychology of love? Well, first of all, we must discover, yet again, our unconscious vulnerability to damage and sadism in our intimate relationships. As little children, each of us craved the exclusive attention of our mother, or father, or, in- deed, of some other primary caregiver. In the classic situation, we each yearned to be our mother’s favourite little soldier, or our daddy’s girl, for example. But we had to share the limited parental affection with our pesky brothers and sisters, and, worse still, with Mummy’s partner – generally the father – or with Daddy’s partner – generally the mother. In adult life, we endeavour to repeat this situation – usually unconsciously – by breaking up couples.
Freud would have hypothesized that when we marry, we not only fulfil a long- standing wish to have a special sexual partner, just as Mummy and Daddy had, but, also, we feel sad and guilty that we married the wrong person, someone other than the Mummy or Daddy whom we adored in infancy and early childhood. Thus, many people, upon exchanging wedding rings, feel a conscious sense of pleasure and achievement, but also an unconscious fear of having betrayed the parents, as if to say, ‘Look, Mum, I found a woman much better than you,’ or ‘Hey, Dad, my husband makes more money than you do.’ Psychotherapists have come to realize that in order to manage this guilt, couples often desexualize their adult marriages as a means of remaining secretly faithful to their parents. Although such observations may seem complex and even odd, contemporary psychological professionals encounter this dynamic over and over again in our daily work.
With a national divorce rate hovering near 40 per cent, we know only too well how painful and tenuous marriage can be. Freud certainly helped us to understand that the explosions and inhibitions which destroy our intimate partnerships may often occur outside of our conscious awareness or our conscious control. But recognizing that being part of a couple – something for which most of us yearn –may also be a source of deep terror, we have the opportunity to seek help if we find our- selves in trouble.
Furthermore, Freud’s writings on the psychology of love have the potential to make us aware of the secret desires that might be lurking beneath our conscious lust. Hopefully, the next time we feel erotically tempted by the sight of a married person wearing a shiny gold wedding ring, we might approach this person in a more wary fashion, conscious of the fact that it may be the ring (and what it represents, namely the wish to hurt a rival) that attracts us, and the potential for inflicting harm, rather than a curvaceous bosom or a strong pair of biceps. And next time we become uninterested in our own marital partner, we might think about the way in which we may have secretly confused our erotic partner with our caretaking parents of early childhood.
Life Lessons from Freud